7 Surprising Health Benefits Of Fly Fishing

Turns out the second most popular outdoor activity in America is also really good for you.

June 27, 2017
health benefits of fly fishing

The fish was a beauty: a 13-inch, wild-born cutthroat trout, muscular from its dappled yellow back to its pink belly, with a telltale red streak below its jaw. I had caught it myself, pulling up on the rod to snag it with the hook hidden in the fly and reeling it in so that Patrick Little, my guide, could grab it in a smooth, rubber net. I held it the way he taught me to, wetting my hand first, cradling its belly in my palm, and wrapping my thumb and fingers around it. Little snapped a photo. Then I quickly let the fish go, my heart pounding with excitement. 

So, this was fly fishing—a type of angling using a lightweight rod, weighted line, and an artificial fly that, with the help of the angler’s rhythmic moves, mimics certain fishes’ favorite food. While on vacation at Montana’s high-end but eco-friendly The Ranch at Rock Creek, I had decided to learn to fly fish. I would be under the tutelage of the retreat’s expert guides, who made sure we fished as sustainably as possible.

I had no idea fly fishing would be so fun, but I was even more surprised to discover that catching the fish wasn’t the only awesome thing about the sport—it’s also extremely good for you. Fly fishing is great for mind, body, and soul. It exercised my muscles, calmed and focused my thoughts, gave me goals and a sense of accomplishment, and got me outdoors and into nature. (Here are 8 amazing health benefits of being in nature.)

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As it turns out, medical and scientific research backs up my experience. After jogging, fishing is the nation’s most popular outdoor activity, with nearly 48 million Americans casting for a bite in 2015, according to a joint report by the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation and the Outdoor Foundation. Of that number, only a select few—about 13 percent—are fly fishing. That may be because it takes technique to be successful at it. But, as I discovered, a couple of lessons and some basic equipment (Amazon.com sells a fly fishing starter kit for $90) can get you—and the fish—hooked pretty quickly.

Here are the 7 surprising health benefits of fly fishing— plus some crucial advice on keeping it good for the fish, too.

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exercise is one of the health benefits of fly fishing
Chris Ross/Getty
It's exercise

Nearly 65 percent of people who fish do it for the workout. That might seem strange to someone who doesn’t fish; after all, you’re kind of just standing there, right? Well, as I found out that my muscles had quite a job to do. Reeling and casting exercises your arms and shoulders without taxing your wrists, which I was taught should stay fairly stationary. I also used my back, core, and leg muscles to steady myself in the moving water in the correct standing posture. But the activity is fairly low-impact and can be done from a stationary position, so it’s good for all types—even couch potatoes like me. A 2012 study in the British journal Substance found angling to be an appropriate exercise for people who have been previously inactive or have disabilities that limit mobility.

Related: 5 Simple Steps To Starting A Daily Exercise Routine You Can Stick To

But you can also get a whole lot more sporty about it, says Dr. Jack Berryman, official historian of the American College of Sports Medicine and the author of numerous books and articles on fly fishing: “I row a lot, paddle a canoe, and hike to get to the water, and then river wading can be very strenuous.” Though avid fly fishermen risk over-use strain in their arms and shoulders, studies show that varying your casting method reduces pain, so there’s a benefit to continuing to learn new techniques.

helping balance and coordination is one of the health benefits of fly fishing
Jillian Lukiwski/Getty
It aids balance and coordination

I’m terrible at anything where I have to hold a racket, a cue, a bat, or a stick. But with fly fishing, you must cast and re-cast consistently against the water to find the fish and keep them interested in your fly, so you get ample practice to perfect your form. With a rod in my hand, the balletic movement became second nature to me the more I repeated it. Not only that, but on the first day of fishing, when I was on foot, I was doing all of this while standing in a rocky, slippery creek bed.

Dr. Alice Chen, a physiatrist at Manhattan’s Hospital of Special Surgery, says there’s a physical benefit to negotiating uneven terrain like that: “From mechanical standpoint, it requires you to use some of those smaller muscles on your abdominal walls and back.” Along with the balance those core muscles support and the coordination the movements take, Berryman also notes its benefits to strength and flexibility.

Related: 4 Gardening Activities That Burn More Calories Than Running A Mile

lowering stress levels is one of the health benefits of fly fishing
©Natasha Japp Photography/Getty
It's a brain workout

According to the Substance authors, fishing provides the active learning opportunities that elicit “a sense of purpose and motivation, increase opportunities for achievement and boost self-esteem.” As my guides coached me through the tasks—“Cast, mend, mend. Pull up when you see a hit. Pay attention.”—they were giving my brain a workout. And when they complimented my form, I felt like a winner. Just knowing I was coordinated enough to flick that fly into the water properly made me happy.

Moreover, as myriad studies have shown, I was receiving a cognitive boost from exercising in nature. Outdoor activity restores attention, jolting your brain out of the fatigue it feels from the same old routine. It reduces the stress that burns out your mental capacity, and it may even boost innate survival mechanisms like increased spatial and structural perception. The latter applies with fly fishing, where your eyes and memory help you get acquainted with a stretch of water and the habits of fish.

Related: The Surprising Health Benefits Of Bird Watching

Dr. Gary W. Small, Director of the UCLA Longevity Center and Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging at UCLA adds, “Fly fishing involves several mental tasks that likely boost brain health. The neural circuits controlling focused attention and rapid reaction time will likely strengthen, and the thrill of catching a fish will elevate mood through the dopamine brain boosts.”

And for expert fly fishermen who make their own flies, there’s the added boost of the creative and intellectual process. “There’s just a great sense of accomplishment in making a fly out of hair or fur and then actually catching a fish on this thing you made,” says Berryman. “And a part of that is the entomology. You have to learn to know bugs and insects in order to replicate them.”

Fly fishing lowers your stress levels
Mike Powell/Getty
It chills you out

Shea Shaughnessy, an activities manager at The Ranch at Rock Creek and my guide for the first day, told me he liked fly fishing because it was “very Zen.” I was skeptical as I struggled to follow his instructions—“pretend like you’re nailing a hammer behind you and flinging a potato from a fork in front”—as I practiced in a cow paddock on dry land. But once I was mid-stream with the cool current hitting my waders and the sun bouncing off the surface, I couldn’t help but smile. The constant back and forth of casting lulled me into a calm. With its graceful motions, fly fishing is a particularly meditative form of “quiet sport.” It requires patience, said Shaughnessy, and your fishing improves the more you relax.

Related: 6 Things That Happened When I Meditated Every Day For A Month

Dr. Herbert Benson, Director Emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute and Mind Body Medicine Professor at Harvard Medical Center, agrees. In a 2016 article published in the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute’s On the Brain, Benson said that the rhythmic dance of fly fishing “breaks the train of everyday thought,” eliciting a relaxation response that lowers heart rates. The Substance study found that fishing was so absorbing that it provided a “mental break” from worries. And, as Berryman notes, the soothing sounds of running water, the quiet, and the solitude enhance the feelings of wellbeing.

a mood boost is one of the health benefits of fly fishing
Steve Smith/Getty
It enhances your mood

“There’s more benefit to doing physical activity with a purpose as opposed to walking on treadmill,” says Dr. Chen. “And exercising out in nature has its benefits because it has the emotional component to it. You might get a better endorphin kick.” Though it might seem contradictory to the calming aspects of the sport, the thrill of actually landing a fish can be great for your emotional well-being. The authors of the Substance article emphasize the rejuvenating aspects of an activity done in a natural setting, far away from the strains and distractions of daily, urban life.

Related: Make This 3-Ingredient Room Spray To Boost Your Mood In Seconds

“Fish live in a lot of beautiful places, so getting there and being there is a big part of it, says Berryman. “The sun, the fresh air, the wind, the rain—it can be a very invigorating activity.”

According to Patrick Little, who is Director of Activities for The Ranch at Rock Creek, it’s a fishing guide’s job to help you ease into that oneness with nature. “Out here,” he says, “you forget about everything. ‘Is there wifi on the creek?’ I’ve been asked that two or three times. As soon as I hear that, I'm gonna try to get you off your phone.” On my float trip, Patrick succeeded. Just being outdoors in a pristine stream on the gorgeous Montana prairie blissed me out. The fish on the hook was gravy. 

fly fishing is good for your mental health
VWB photos//Getty
It's a tool for healing

Fly fishing has proven so therapeutic that national organizations have formed around it for the rehabilitative health of people who have experienced illness and trauma. Project Healing Waters uses fly fishing to help disabled veterans recover from the physical and emotional wounds of battle.

Related: Army Vets Are Turning Into Organic Farmers Thanks To This Program 

Participants call the program a “life saver,” testifying that fly fishing has allowed them grapple with post-combat agoraphobia, anger issues, and “mental chaos,” and to adapt to their physical limitations. A recent study in Community Mental Health found that fly fishing reduced myriad symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Casting for Recovery runs fly fishing retreats for breast cancer survivors. The motion of fly casting is similar to the low-impact exercises prescribed to women recovering from breast surgery, says the group, and the sport gives women renewed confidence in their bodies amid the spirit-lifting contexts of nature and peer support. (Here are 7 more mental health benefits of being outside.)



fly fishing promotes social bonding—one of fly fishing's many health benefits
It encourages togetherness

Spending time with family and friends is the second-biggest reason people say they go fishing. Women proclaim it the best thing about their fishing experience. I can concur with that: My partner wasn’t so keen on fly fishing, but she was thrilled to come on the float, cheering me on as I casted and bonding with me in my success. That helped us get along even better than we normally do. Out there in the Montana wilderness with eagles spying down on us from the cliffsides and flashes of cutthroat and brown trout in the water below us, we both felt that sense of awe in the natural world that research has shown promotes “prosocial tendencies”: increased helpfulness, altruism, and cooperation. (As it turns out, spending time in nature together is one of the 8 habits of happy couples.)

how to make fly fish without hurting fish
So it's great for you, but how about the fish?

Let’s face it: While my cortisol levels are dropping and I’m relaxing, the fish is totally stressed out. And what effect am I having on the larger environment? More than 65 percent of people who fish say they are motivated by conservation. That makes sense because, without clean waters, there are no fish, and without fish, there is no fishing.

But fly fishing isn’t necessarily sustainable. It can have a negative impact. Many lakes and streams are stocked with fish born in hatcheries. These facilities pollute waters with concentrated fish waste and antibiotics. They over-consume feed made from herring-type species, helping to deplete food supplies for wild fish. Their spawn push out native species at the same time that sport fishing further threatens native populations. And there’s new concern that some of fly fishing gear—specifically felt-soled boots used to negotiate slippery rocks—is spreading invasive microorganisms. Some states have banned the boots. The conservationist fly fishing group Trout Unlimited offers information on alternatives.

Related: Here Are 12 Fish You Should Never Eat

Fly fishing in Montana is higher in sustainability because it’s the only state that does not stock moving waters; all the fish in its rivers and streams are wild. Rock Creek is a Blue Ribbon waterway. The designation is reserved for the most pristine, plentiful fisheries in the country. In order to keep the natural population healthy, fishing there is strictly catch-and-release. Patrick Little told me, “If I could hold a deer and then let it go, I’d hunt. But I don’t like killing animals, so I fly fish like this.”

He follows best practices for catch-and-release, making sure, among other things, not to keep the fish out of water for more than 15 seconds or touch them with dry hands, which removes the protective coating from their skin. Trout Unlimited and the sustainable sport fishing organization FishSmart provide more information on harm-reducing catch-and-release.

In the end, though, you may not even need to catch any fish to enjoy fly fishing. Some seasoned anglers, says Shaughnessy, don’t use hooks; they just like watching the fish swallow and spit out their hand-tied fly. Then, satisfied that they have tricked a worthy opponent, they move along on the stream.